The Manhattan laboratory of International Flavors & Fragrances, a facility that spans the better part of a Midtown office floor, has more bottles lying around than a frat house on Sunday.
There are about 84,000 of them, each filled with a potent oil, divided up among the lab's 28 bays. Every time some rich banker prowls around town wearing Calvin Klein's Eternity or a debutante trails Oscar de la Renta's Live in Love across an Upper East Side penthouse party, they are rewarding the labors of IFF's team of perfumers. Both scents were made here.
"But yesterday was a big Axe day, I can tell you," Veronique Ferval, IFF's creative center manager, tells me. "You could walk around and could smell . . ."
. . . a high-school locker room? But she's cut off by Ann Gottlieb, the woman who oversees all Axe scents. IFF is currently trying to win the contract for Axe's 2014 scent (it releases at least one a year), competing against other fragrance houses. No detail should be spilled. "It paid off," Gottlieb tells Ferval. "Your submissions were really good."
Ferval's face warms in relief. "Oh, good! Thank you."
Fragrance can be a rarefied business, but inside IFF, a place whose lobby displays a high-end-perfume hall of fame, the facade quickly evaporates. For here, at this very lab, the same scientists, with the same equipment, often with the same ingredients, are designing elegant $200 colognes and $3.99 bottles of Axe body spray. And if Axe conjures anything in the mind of someone old enough to drink (legally), it's that of a dive-bar meat market and a backward-hatted jock bathed in a fog of musk. And Ann Gottlieb? She's a consultant who worked on Eternity and Live in Love, too.
So what's the difference? You could say it's molecular: A fine fragrance is designed with differently weighted molecules, some evaporating faster than others, so that a scent evolves as it's worn. Axe doesn't bother with these subtleties; its pants come right off. Boom. In your face. "It's an instant-delivery kind of product," Gottlieb explains. "It's because of the way Axe is sold. Guys don't stand in Walmart hanging out testing fragrances."
Then again, you could say the contrast between Axe and those classy scents really has little to do with composition—that, in truth, the biggest difference is in the marketing. Axe may seem frivolous, a brand defined by a decade of ads showing large-chested women lusting over the men who wear it. And yet, if this were just a case of "sex sells," Axe's siren call would be easy to replicate. It isn't. Axe, which is owned by Unilever, is a $2.5 billion global brand with relentless growth (retail sales rose 13.6% from 2010 to 2011). Its success is largely the result of a sophisticated, cutting-edge marketing machine that constantly monitors youth culture's subtle shifts so as to stay hot on the hormone trail. The Unilever product came to dominate the now $5 billion U.S. men's body-spray market in 2007, only five years after entering it. It currently owns a 72% share of the body-spray category, 58 points higher than its nearest competitor, Old Spice. Procter & Gamble tried to keep up but couldn't; one copycat, Tag, folded in 2010. And this is why a dignified institution like IFF is eager to devote space to the preferred brand of bros in heat: Each Axe scent—there are 13 for sale now—will sell about three times the volume of an average fine fragrance.
We leave the laboratory and cross the hall, and Gottlieb spots Eric Lorello, a well-dressed 27-year-old IFF employee working on some aerosol cans. "You're looking at some of my most valuable skin," Gottlieb says. When she comes to IFF for visits, the company rounds up men like Lorello so she can smell Axe prototypes on him. She did so this morning.
I tell Lorello he's fortunate that Axe doesn't actually compel women to charge toward him. Here in the lab it would trigger a mad rush resulting in thousands of broken bottles, glass and blood and fluid everywhere, and a choking perfumery stench requiring a full-floor evacuation. Lorello smiles and says, "It wouldn't be a bad thing, though."
To conjure male fantasies, to be a testosterone whisperer, Axe's marketing team must engage in constant sociological study. It must consider that, according to its research, the majority of college-aged males and only about a quarter of females consider themselves more attractive than average—and then act on that information. It must understand not just the desires of young men but how they try to fulfill them. "I've been sort of a student of the game for 12 years," says David Rubin, 41, an Axe marketing director who's been with the brand since 2000. "I hope my wife doesn't hear that."
Rubin is slim and affably dorky, a student who likely didn't have much game. In fact, all the Axe employees seem more study hall than weight room. Which is just fine, apparently, because these guys' game expired the moment they graduated. Axe managers are trained to discard old tactics—to know that every year, a new horde of kids will enter their demographic with new social habits and that Axe can't speak to them like it spoke to last year's class. "The key to the brand," says 44-year-old Matthew McCarthy, U.S. brand development director for deodorants and fragrances, "is we have an essence that remains constant. We don't spend any time trying to reinvent the brand, but we watch how guys and girls interact. That part evolves."
Rubin and McCarthy are in a fraternity of sorts: the Axe Republic. That's the name that, without irony, the global Axe team uses to refer to itself. Theirs is an adventurous life, involving frequent forays into college towns, where the Axe team joins bar crawls and keggers. Older Republic members have designated "trendslators," fresh hires who can explain what's on teens' minds. And when these new pledges are brought in, they're even shown an indoctrination film. It's a classic clip from The Matrix, where the hero, Neo, is offered two pills—a blue one to preserve his ignorance, or a red one that will show him a new reality. Axe is the red pill. "It encapsulates what the Axe Republic is about," Rubin says. "There is a whole bunch of stuff that might apply to other Unilever brands that doesn't apply to the Republic. The rules of gravity can be pushed."
As an example, McCarthy suggests we watch what he calls "CYB." That turns out to mean Cleans Your Balls, a 2010 infomercial spoof to advertise Axe's "Detailer," a loofah for guys too self-conscious to use a loofah. (It's by design: "Grooming habits may not change week to week, but the psychographics and emotions around them change," Rubin says. Axe catered its product to the moment—guys were ready to scrub, the marketing team surmised, but they feared feeling froufrou.) The cohosts of CYB are two beautiful women who use the Detailer to polish sports equipment. One scrubs down a pair of golf balls, then hands them to her cohost. "Go ahead and play with those clean balls, Denise," she says. And so Denise does, rolling them around in her hand for 13 aching seconds. "This scene," says marketing director Gaston Vaneri, as we watch Denise sexually harass the entire sport of golf, "was discussed for a very long time."
And it survived. The brand is granted a higher risk tolerance than other Unilever brands, such as Dove or Lipton. Its marketing can offend delicate sensibilities. Axe produces ads with an all-or-nothing mentality. "We avoid the debate with our legal department around a la carting a spot," Vaneri says. "There's no discussion of, 'Can you remove those 13 seconds?' We either do the spot, or we don't." Still, he says, the Republic isn't cavalier. "We're overprepared to deal with anything that's misconstrued."
But CYB debuted with some risk management: It began as a web clip, where audiences are more self-selecting, then was respun for TV once Axe saw a positive response. Axe was able to do that because it spends a higher percentage of its marketing budget on digital than does any other Unilever product. Axe has product placement in video games, funds branded sitcoms on CollegeHumor.com, and it was one of the first sponsors of now-popular sites like Heavy.com and XFire. It develops its own games, such as Axeman, a saga about recruiting women for a party that was released for mobile and PC this summer. And earlier this year, it launched an online comic book that was rapidly published chapter by chapter: Fans could suggest plot twists, and the artists would draw commenters in as story characters.
Does all of this help make money? No doubt. But in the Axe Republic, that's the wrong question. Unilever considers Axe its special test kitchen, a place to experiment with ideas before there's any metric to judge them. "They helped us define the idea of communication and innovation-led growth," says Rob Master, Unilever VP of media for the Americas and Europe. One or two years after they're rolled out, Axe tactics filter into other Unilever brands—so, say, when you help Mom make dinner in Ragu's thrill-seeking online Let's Get Cooking game, you have Axe to thank.
For a vast company like Unilever that's seen flat profits and some sagging divisions—particularly in food, where in February it reported a year-over-year volume decline of 3.9%—this is money well spent, says Morningstar analyst Erin Lash. "Unilever has been focused on growing its high-growth, higher-margin personal-care brands, so obviously leveraging learning from one brand could aid other segments that may not be performing up to expectations." And if there is one recession-proof resource, it is the libido of a teenage boy.
Axe launched in France in 1983, and by the time it came to America in 2002, its only product was still a body spray—the bastard child of deodorant and cologne, worked out in Axe's first European lab and intended to be sprayed liberally across the chest. In the mid-2000s, Axe began exploring other categories. Most have been successful: deodorants, shower gels, hair care. It also released a few clunkers, like a higher-end fine fragrance in fancier packaging. Rubin has taken a lesson from these overreaches. The Axe guy will spend about five years with the brand—Rubin says the core is from age 20 to 25, though high-school gym teachers would dispute that—and Axe's success rests on studying that ever-changing group, rather than chase guys as they age. "I think a lot of consumers today want brands—and people and products—that take positions, that stand for something," he says. "And the smaller your audience, the more you can stand for something."
So what does Axe stand for, aside from the God-given right to get laid? Those field trips are designed to answer that question. For example, when Rubin saw that Axe brand awareness was lagging among African-Americans, he and some Republic comrades took a trip to Howard University, in Washington, D.C. Rubin asked fraternity members there to take him shopping at a nearby store, which was tough going: Rubin's a small fit. So the Howard men huddled and started talking brand sizing—Seven is a little tighter, Boss tends to size big—to figure out what might work. Rubin perked up. "Fraternity guys talking about which jeans run tight on sizes? That's not a conversation we'd hear at Ohio State," he says. So he dug in and found that these Howard guys had a different level of confidence from the usual Axe buyer: "Getting a girl is not their game; getting that girl is their game."
Armed with that insight, Axe developed a new line, which debuted in 2005: Unlimited, which carried the tagline "For Players Only." It sold well, Rubin says.
Another example: Back in 2002, the Axe Republic comrades say, they saw guys and girls hanging out in separate social groups. That informed Axe's first U.S. outreach, a viral video in which a cheerleader tackles a high-school football player and claws at his uniform. Axe was the player's emissary: It wafted into Girlville for him and brought back a catch. But now, kids hang out in mixed-gender groups; they're pals, then hookup buddies, then pals again. That complicates things. "The proposition of Axe is it helps guys be attractive to women," says Rubin. "Because of that, women are our proof point. I mean, we can't make guys more attractive to girls if the girls don't agree with us."
So Axe is shifting in modest but significant ways, to play to both genders simultaneously. To do this, it seems willing to sponsor basically anything that can set the stage for a college roommate's sexile. There's One Night Only, where Axe hosts gigantic musical acts like Girl Talk at small clubs in college towns; Axe-branded nightclubs; and campus-wide "Undie Runs," where hordes of stripped-down college kids donate clothes and then move on to other athletic pursuits. And in TV ads, rather than being overtaken by a scent, actresses are more demanding, telling guys to smell or groom better. "Women see Axe as empowering women in a different way than before, because Axe is all about getting the girl to make the first move," contends Jake Katz of youth-market research company YPulse. "It taps into this idea that millennials are raised in an equal-opportunity environment. Women are told to go for it more than any generation before."
Before Axe launched its hair-care line in 2009, the Republic spent months speaking to college women, asking them to critique men's hair. It then incorporated those ideas into its ads. "So by the time guys knew to pay attention," Rubin says, "there was a whole volume of women saying, 'This is how I think about you.' " And this year, for the first time, Axe released a body spray for women—Anarchy For Her, a floral punch in the face that's paired with an Anarchy For Him, along with ads showing men and women falling under an equal spell. (The company declines to say whether more female-targeted products will follow.)
None of this may sound like feminism. But if you rewind the Axe ad reel, you can see just how culturally in tune it is today—and how important it is for Axe to stay vigilant. Axe ads from the early '90s were James Bond knockoffs: a grown man in some steamy, exotic locale would drop his sunglasses, a woman would pick them up, and—helloooo—catch a lusty whiff of his chest. "We talked to some of the more progressive kids and they were laughing at Axe," says Emma Cookson, chairman of BBH in New York, the agency that took over Axe in 1995. "So we said, 'You have to stop saying it's a magic potion, like a fine fragrance that just totally transforms the moment. Don't take yourself so seriously.' "
BBH reformulated the pitch: It became (wink, wink) a magic potion that (nudge, nudge) totally transforms the moment. And that laid the groundwork for today's metamorphosis, with ads so cartoonish that guys and girls are expected to enjoy them together. "Axe is deliberately not telling the truth, so they're being truthful about being untruthful. And there's an honesty there that this generation really relates to," says psychologist Kit Yarrow, who studied teen purchases for her book Gen Buy.
When I repeat the observation, Cookson laughs. "That's just spot-on," she says.
Like the Beatles or Twitter, Axe's 2002 debut is a line drawn in time: If you came of age during its reign, you're better equipped to appreciate the kids who love it. And if you were never Axe's target demo, the whole thing just seems a little gross. "I understand the perceptions," says Dan Fletcher, one half of Axe's social media team. Along with partner Lauren Dugdale (they're both 28), he responds to every tweet or Facebook comment aimed at Axe—enthusiastic postings that include everything from photos featuring Axe cans to chest-thumping details of the previous night's hookup. "When Axe came out, it was my senior year of high school," Fletcher recalls. "Talking to the guys on the Facebook page now is not unlike talking to the guys and friends I grew up with."
Axe outsources its social media work: Fletcher and Dugdale are actually employees of Axe's public-relations contractor, Edelman. And before they were hired in early 2011, Axe's social voice was simply a girl named Jennie. The two are a market-crafted pair—Fletcher is heavily tattooed and obsessed with skateboarding, and Dugdale is blonde, bubbly, and knows how to mug for the camera in that I'm-tough-but-hot way. Together, they film goofy videos testing Axe products (like cartwheeling across the Brooklyn Bridge to show the staying power of Axe's hair gel) and gather consumer insights based on everything Axe's combined 4 million social media followers write.
And right now they're prompting some more of those postings, huddled over a laptop and crafting a call to action on Facebook that, to nail the voice of a 16-year-old's text message, requires the precision of an overcaffeinated artist.
Fletcher: "How many exclamation points will you put on?"
Dugdale: "I want to do three."
There's some more fiddling and fine-tuning, and then a deep breath.
Dugdale: "It's always this moment, like, I've been doing this for years and still, like . . ."
Fletcher: "It's still exciting."
Click. Post. March 2, 2:51 p.m. Onto the news feeds of horny teenagers everywhere, there is now a photo of a tower of Axe canisters along with this imperative: "AXE Nation! DROP a LIKE if AXE makes you awesome!!! Which AXE is your AXE? -Dan + Lauren with AXE"
And then, the craziest things happen!!!
In sum, 5,177 people click like on this. An additional 1,235 leave a comment. Of those comments, 158 come in the first three minutes, 24 of them from women. In fact, 25% of Axe's Facebook fans are female. Among the first to write is Brooke Ibarra, 31, an Ohio resident who sees the post at home while caring for her 2-year-old. "I've told my boyfriend I like when he wears it," she explains later, "so he only buys the scents I like."
Also at home is 38-year-old Tammi Roderick, who sniffed Axe in a supermarket nine months ago, dropped a "like," then bought a bunch of Axe products for her husband and three sons. "I love how it smells," she says. "They open up the bathroom door after a shower and the whole bathroom smells like Axe, and I love it."
This may not be quite what the Axe Republic had in mind, but it must be reassuring. "My sons jokingly say, 'Oh, now we're going to be irresistible to women,' " Roderick tells me. Her sons are 17, 18, and 20. Axe is just getting started with them.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.